Caliban’s War (book 2 of The Expanse series) by James S.A. Corey (book review).

December 26, 2019 | By | Reply More

‘Caliban’s War’ by James S. A. Corey is the second novel in the main ‘Expanse’ space opera series. Note: for those who have only watched ‘The Expanse’, there are significant sub-plot changes between the TV series and the novel.

Tension is heightened between Mars and the United Nations on Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede, the breadbasket of the Solar System’s outer planets and the Belt. Marine patrols around the farm domes have become the norm. It will only take one incident to set a war going. The spark comes in the form of a single super-soldier attacking a UN and then a Martian patrol.

‘Caliban’s War’ is told from the viewpoint of four people.

The first is the sole survivor of the two patrols, Gunnery Sergeant Roberta Draper of the Martian Marine Corps or Robbie to her friends. She needs time to recover from her injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, but is whisked to Earth to give her testimony of events to the UN’s Martian peace negotiations. During a walk on Earth, she realises Earth people so vastly outnumber the Martians that they would win any war or, in the longer term, Mars would develop the same way as Earth had with all its masses of people on ‘Basic’. The only thing that really matters to her is getting revenge on that super-soldier, whatever it takes.

Further on in the novel, Robbie uses her military skills to the full. I was impressed by the way the writers (James S.A. Corey is actually two writers, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) got her to study the enemy and work out its weaknesses before going into battle. It felt very realistic.

Praxidike Meng is a botanist developing new types of food plants to grow on Ganymede. His agri-dome is destroyed when the Martian/UN war breaks out. He goes in search of his young daughter, Mei, whom he left at a day care school only to find she was taken away by her paediatrician, Dr. Strickland. He keeps on searching for her for weeks while Ganymede slowly dies as its plant support sub-systems breakdown one after another in a cascade of problems. Desperate and hungry to the bone, he spots Jim Holden during a food riot and asks him for help in finding Mei.

James Holden, captain of the Rocinante, a ‘salvaged’ Martian corvette and his crew have been employed for a good year by Fred Johnson, the nominal leader of the Outer Planets Alliance to hunt down pirates when the Ganymede incident happens. Fred wants to know what is going on down there and gets Jim and two of his crew Naomi and Amos to switch ships to a relief freighter, Weeping Somnambulist, to go there to investigate in disguise, which Prax sees through.

Together, they trace Mei as far as the old supposedly disused tunnels on Ganymede where they find traces of the protomolecule, a deadly infectious alien artefact that caused a lot of problems in the first novel of ‘The Expanse’ series. A ship launch is heard from nearby. Mei is probably on board, but Prax, Holden and crew cannot follow. Instead, they make their way back to Fred Johnson on Tycho Station. As Fred has the only known sample of the protomolecule outside of Venus, Holden accuses him of spreading it on Ganymede, which he denies. This ends with Fred sacking Holden and his crew. The only thing left for Holden to do is help Prax find Mei.

Chrisjen Avasarala, assistant to the undersecretary of executive administration at the UN, response to the Ganymede incident is to politically manoeuvre the UN bosses to set up a peace conference between them and Mars. What worries her more is the coincident spike in activity of the protomolecule on Venus to the incident. She suspects the protomolecule is involved. She rattles more cages politically until she ends up being sent away from Earth to be the UN witness of the humanitarian effort on Ganymede on a space-yacht of Mao, the very person she suspects of being behind the protomolecule’s emergence. By this time, she has Robbie in her employ and takes her along for security.

This almost 600-page novel is really two intertwining novels, the Prax-Holden search for Mei and dealing with the consequences, and the Robbie/Avasarala investigation and revenge on the super-soldier and those that brought it into being. Of course, the two stories’ paths converge on the villains.

Being the second novel in the series, it sits very much in the shadow of the first novel, ‘Leviathan Wakes’, where the excitement of a lot of new big ideas belongs to the first and the big climax belongs to a novel later in the series. But ‘Caliban’s War’ does not rest quietly. It starts with Mei’s kidnapping and a localised battle and moves step by inevitable step to a major space battle. Throughout, it notches the buzz of tension and adventure that is pure joy to any thrill-seeking reader.

Such readers will naturally latch onto Robbie, who supplies a lot of the action in a professional dedicated way or Holden, who is the hero that tries to do the right thing, and comes up with interesting solutions to the problems he and others face. They are the novel’s role models for the soldier and would-be saint.

Prax and Avasarala fill the gap of the in-depth characterisation. Prax is the gentle forgiving soul in a desperate search for his daughter. He understands the world immediately around him and what the at times are the horrible consequences for the future. When he is not focussed on finding Mei, because there is nothing more he can do at that time, he brings an understanding of nurturing and care to the story.

Avasarala is an experienced politician that works on instinct. She knows how to handle most people with ease and only comes up short when dealing with people who are equally experienced. She wants to make lives better on Earth, Mars and the whole Solar System for her children, grandchildren and people in general. The best she can do is fire-fight a whole series of situations as they come up and is currently dealing with the implications of the protomolecule’s actions on Venus and preventing the likely war between Earth and Mars. She is the grandmaster chess-player of the viewpoint characters.

The novel is set in Solar System and so is not in the tradition of a grand intergalactic or even interstellar space opera. It is the action and stakes involved that gives it that feel, but with a major difference. A lot of the technology involved is realistic for the stage of civilisation development it is portraying, though I personally question the lack of space elevators up from the planet and moon surfaces, there were already viable outline designs for a space elevator for Earth when this novel was written in 2012.

Another pleasing aspect is the depth of background scientific facts that has been used. Like all good Science Fiction stories, these details only surface in the writing when necessary. For the science knowledgeable among us, we can sense how well thought out the consequent engineering is, which is very pleasing.

All in all, this is a delightful novel to read that appeals to many interests, the adventurer, the science and engineering guru, the emotional indulger and the philosopher. It is a true world-builder on many levels.

Rosie Oliver

December 2019

(pub: Orbit, 2012. 595 page enlarged paperback. Price: £13.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84149-9900-1)

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Category: Books, Scifi

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